Tania Cordoba talks with the Reverend Timothy Njoya and finds that laughter and high spirits are vital tools in the fight against oppression in Kenya.
Diapers and dictators
'They beat me and left me for dead. If the journalists had not thrown themselves on my body to save me from the final bullets of Nairobi police I would not be here to talk to you .'
Reverend Timothy Njoya's bloodied face flashed across TV screens and newspapers around the world last year, shaking his native Kenya into a frenzy. The fury and counter-fury of systemic oppression and courageous revolt quickly shredded the democratic fig-leaf of President Daniel Arap Moi's 20-year dictatorship.
With typical generosity Njoya cautions that: 'The police are human beings too, when they are not fulfilling commands.'
Full of hope and courage in the face of an openly repressive regime, people look to Njoya as a voice they can have confidence in.
Njoya carries a diaper bag with him to his sermons. His face beams with mischievous good cheer as he explains the bag's purpose. 'When the police throw teargas into the Church, I pick up the canisters and put them in my bag the diaper bag absorbs the gas as it does baby's urine. And so I continue with my sermon. The police outside are wondering what is going on, and why we are not all running out.'
Njoya has become a national figure in Kenya. He credits the media with extending his pulpit, giving him a national and international audience.
'The people hear my sermons, they hear them in the prisons, in the slums; even the police hear my sermons. The reason I am fighting Moi is that he feels he owns the country.'
His opposition to Moi is rooted in a view of African history and the Kenyan independence movement that is nothing if not controversial. He believes that his country ended up 'Africanizing a colonial system', in effect 'Africanizing slavery'. Njoya holds similar views on the negative effects of Western Christianity that have got him into trouble with his own church.
'In Kenya today there is no freedom of association, no freedom of the press, and no freedom of expression. What we have is government-orchestrated violence the Government fosters violence to show that Africans are too "immature" to be given rights.'
Njoya explains that there are no violations of human rights, because there are simply no rights. The ruling party (KANU) insists that 'human rights' is a foreign ideology. Such notions fit all too well with the crude anthropological view of Africa still held by many Westerners.
'They say that with democracy, Africa will revert back to tribalism, chaos and anarchy, because democracy is not an African concept. The Government would organize people to eat each other, in order to prove that if you bring democracy there will be cannibalism,' says Reverend Njoya, with a laugh building deep in his belly.
The Kenyan opposition is kept weak and fragmented. Anyone who is not from the ruling party needs a licence for a gathering of more than eight people. This applies for any public meeting, even for weddings and funerals. When these laws are broken, it is not uncommon for the state to use teargas, to beat people, or even to kill.
Njoya calls for constitutional change to allow for a coalition government. Too often he has seen opposition politicians put personal ambition before principle. He puts his faith in the social movement rooted in the slums, local churches and a growing feminist and environmentalist consciousness.
He readjusts his sling - his right arm was fractured by the Nairobi police - as he recalls an incident when he went for dinner in a fancy restaurant in a small resort town on the shore of Lake Victoria. He ordered a rare and expensive tilipia fish caught mainly for export. Before long, some street children found him there and they wanted to eat too. Njoya invited the children to sit down with him and ordered a plate just like his for each child. Some even called their friends and soon the posh restaurant was full of poor children having their meal with Njoya.
Some of the children were so dirty that when they sat down they left a 'rubber stamp' on the seat. After eating Njoya checked his pocket. He counted his money one, two, three times. He had barely enough to cover four meals, let alone forty. The restaurant owner came over and stood on the table to make an announcement:
'Today we are very greatly honoured to have Reverend Njoya come and eat in this hotel. We have never seen anything else like this. All my life I have always seen these children eat from the dustbin. From now on these children will be eating here every day without pay until I die.' Allusions to loaves and fishes are inevitable.
Tania Cordoba is an intern in the NI Toronto office.
Tear gas and plastic bullets used by the Kenyan security forces were manufactured by UK companies. For an action pack contact Michael Crowley at Amnesty International UK.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7